By Bob Davidsson
For more than 40 percent of Florida's population living in slavery during the early 19th century, the paths to freedom converged along the coastline of the Palm Beaches and led south to Cape Florida, where a dangerous voyage across the Florida Straits was rewarded with sancutary in the Bahamas.
Located at the southern end of Key Biscayne is the "Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park." Between the years 1821-61 the historic site was a secret meeting place for escaped slaves and Black Seminoles awaiting sea transport to the safety of the Bahamas.
In September 2004, Cape Florida was designated as a "National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Site." The park also is the site of the the historic Cape Florida Lighthouse, first completed in 1825.
The lighthouse was a beacon guiding Bahamian fishing boats and abolitionist sailing vessels to Key Biscayne, where escaped slaves could gain passage to the British island chain.
The "Underground Railroad" network, extending from southern slave states to Canada, was the well-documented road to freedom operated by abolitionists and freed African-Americans. It also had a lesser-known southern branch called the "Southern Underground Railroad," or more commonly the "Saltwater Railroad," along the southeast coast of Florida with an overseas route to the Bahamas.
Slavery has a long history in Florida, but during its historical timeline the state was a sanctuary in the 18th century and offered a path to freedom in the early 19th century for its most oppressed population.
Slavery and Freedom in Spanish Florida: 1565-1821
African slaves arrived with the fleet of Spanish colonists when the Adelantado Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded the City of St. Augustine on Sept. 8, 1565. A census conducted in 1602 by Florida Governor Gonzalo Mendez de Canco recorded 52 slaves living in the colonial city.
Between the years 1672 and 1695, African slaves and mission Indian laborers built the Castillo de San Marcos out of coquina stone. The historic fortress is the oldest permanent structure in Florida.
Unlike instiutionalized slavery in the English colonies to the north, Spanish laws allowed slaves to marry, own property and purchase their freedom through contractual agreements with their owners. As a result, St. Augustine had a diverse population of European colonists, native Americans, and both free African-Americans and slaves.
On Nov. 7, 1693, King Charles II of Spain issued a royal decree providing sanctuary and protection in Florida to escaped slaves from the English colonies of Virginia and the Carolinas. Escaping slaves could request permanent asylum and Spanish citizenship in Florida by accepting baptism in the Catholic Church, enlisting in the local militia, and obeying the laws of Spain.
The "King's Edict" to Florida Governor Laureano de Torres y Ayala (1693-99) states, "As a prize for having adopted the Catholic doctrine and become Catholicized, as soon as you receive this letter, set them all free and give them anything they need, and favor them as much as possible."
"I hope this to be an example, together with my generosity of what others should do," the King's letter concluded. "I want to be notified of the following of my instructions as soon as possible."
To no surprise, Spain's lenient policy resulted in an influx of escaped slaves to Florida from neighboring English colonies, and ongoing political tension between Spain and England. The issue of Florida's sanctuary policy for slaves was inherited by the United States when it gained its independence in 1783.
Florida's Freedom Trail by Land and Sea: 1821-61
The United States purchased Florida from Spain for $5 million as part of the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1821. Florida became a U.S. territory on March 10, 1821. Spain's tolerant sanctuary policy for slaves was scrapped by the new territorial government.
A series of "Black Codes" (Article XVI) were codified in the Florida Constitution of 1838. The article prohibited the territorial General Assembly from passing laws to emancipate slaves.
A plantation system was established in northern Florida as far south as the Suwannee River along the west coast and the upper St. Johns River near the eastern coastline. Central and southern Florida was the domain of the Seminole nation and a few scattered military outposts.
On March 3, 1845, Florida was admitted as the 21st state of the Union. It joined the United States as a slave state.
By the year 1860, Florida had a population of about 140,000 persons. Of this total, 61,475 were African-American slaves. There were only 700 black Freedmen living in Florida, mainly in the cities of Key West, Jacksonville and Pensacola.
The Saltwater Railroad to freedom was created by abolitionists and native Bahamians, with the tacit approval of the British government in Nassau which allowed sanctuary in the island chain. England abolished the slave trade in 1807, and the Emancipation Act of 1833 formally abolished slavery throughout the British Empire.
By contrast, slavery continued in Cuba until abolished by royal decree on Oct. 7, 1886, making the Bahamas the destination of choice for fleeing slaves in Florida and southern Georgia.
Several inland freedom trails converged east of Lake Okeechobee, and continued along the coastline south of the Palm Beaches to Key Biscayne. African-American slaves were joined at Cape Florida by Black Seminoles - former slaves adopted into the Seminole nation, where they created their own unique culture.
Faced with deportations during and after the Seminole Wars, about 200 Black Seminoles used skills acquired from the Indians to build dugout canoes capable of completing the voyage across the Florida Straits. They founded their own settlement on Andros Island.
The exact number of African-Americans that followed the Saltwater Railroad to the Bahamas is unknown. One estimate is as high as 6,000, which would have been 10 percent of the slave population in Florida.
Whether escaping slavery in Florida by Bahamian fishing boats or dugout canoes, they had to survive tropical storms, strong currents in the Gulf Stream, coastal pirates and slave hunters during voyages of more than 100 miles at sea.
The U.S. and Florida governments conducted a 40-year campaign to capture fleeing slaves and Black Seminoles between 1821-61. The State of Florida offered a $350 reward for the return of "lost property". Florida also financed a network of "patrollers" to track fugitive slaves.
The federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required the return of slaves to their southern owners, even in free states. The Act of Congress also made the federal government responsble for finding, returning, and the punishment in court of escaped slaves.
Abolitionist Jonathan Walker learned the hard way that U.S. Navy warships, based in Key West, actively patroled the southeast coast of Florida for vessels carrying fugitive slaves along the Saltwater Railroad.
'The Man with a Branded Hand'
Captain Jonathan Walker (1799 - 1878) of Harwich, MA, was the best known of the abolitionists operating the Southern Underground Railroad. He moved to Pensacola to continue his career and observed first-hand the injustice of slavery in Florida.
In his "Memoir," Walker wrote that he "came to the conclusion that slavery was evil and only evil." He believed he had a divine obligation to help free men from the "national poison" of slavery.
Captain Walker hid seven fugitive slaves in his small trading vessel and sailed from Pensacola in 1844, bound for a safe harbor in the Bahamas.
While in the Florida Straits, he became ill and incapacitated. His vessel was discovered after 14 days at sea by a passing U.S. sloop searching for shipwrecks along the southeast coast of Florida.
Walker and his passengers were taken to Key West. Local authorities determined he would be returned to Pensacola to face charges. He was chained to the hull of the "U.S.S General Taylor" and transported back to his home port.
Once in Pensacola, he was arrested, charged and convicted by a Florida jury of "aiding and inducing two slaves to run away, and stealing two others." As part of Walker's punishment, U.S. Marshal Eben Dorr ordered him tied to a pillory in Pensacola and branded with a hot iron on his hand with the letters "S.S." - an acronym for "slave stealer".
Walker was imprisoned in Florida for 11 months in solitary confinement until abolitionists from across the country were able to gather funds to pay his $600 fine. After his release, he moved to Michigan, where he continued his work as an abolitionist and guest lecturer.
Walker's plight gained national fame when poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem about his ordeal in Florida titled "The Man with a Branded Hand" in 1846.
On May 9, 1862, Union Major Gen. David D. Hunter, an abolitionist officer, issued "General Order No. 11" freeing 900,000 African-American slaves within the jurisdiction of his Department of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. His order was rescinded and superseded by President Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation" on Sept. 22, 1862.
The Civil War marked the end of the 40-year Saltwater Railroad. General Hunter also began enlisting black volunteers in the Union Army. Slavery's days were numbered in Florida.
(c.) Davidsson. 2021.
*NOTE: See also "The Palm Beaches During Reconstruction: 1865-76" below. Additional articles are archived in Older Posts.